Chris Ethridge dies at 65; bassist in 1960s band Flying Burrito Brothers

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Members of the International Submarine Band chose a name for their new group that practically ensured it would never rise above cult status, and sure enough, that band disappeared with barely a trace after making a handful of recordings in the mid-1960s.

But after ISB members Gram Parsons and Chris Ethridge teamed up with ex-Byrds singer and songwriter Chris Hillman and steel guitarist Pete Kleinow, the pioneering country-rock group the Flying Burrito Brothers was born and the ISB won permanent footnote status in the history of pop music.

Ethridge, who died at age 65 on Monday at a hospital in Meridian, Miss., of complications from pancreatic cancer, was the group's original bassist and co-wrote several songs with Parsons, widely lauded as one of the most innovative figures in the marriage of country and rock in the 1960s. Ethridge also spent about eight years in Willie Nelson's touring band, a gig during which he recorded one of Nelson's most famous anthems, "Whiskey River."

"Here's what people don't know or don't remember," Hillman told The Times on Monday. "Three of Gram's greatest songs were co-written by Chris: Those would be 'Hot Burrito #1,' 'Hot Burrito #2" and 'She.'

"I've always said Gram Parsons' greatest recorded vocals were those two ['Hot Burrito'] songs," Hillman said. "Maybe it's my opinion, but I was there and I know I never heard him sing better than he did on those two songs. He just nailed 'em."

"Chris is a big loss," said Booker T. Jones, the influential Memphis organist and bandleader of Booker T. & the MG's, who met Ethridge after both moved to Los Angeles. Jones, also a co-writer of "She," later drafted Ethridge to play in the group that backed Nelson on his massively successful 1978 pop standards album "Stardust."

"He was happy to be in the background," Jones said. "He supported Willie really well. He had an innate knowledge of music, and really understood what notes to play. He was one of those people that you didn't have to worry that he was going to play a wrong note. It wasn't going to happen."

John Christopher Ethridge II was born Feb. 10, 1947, and raised in Meridian — where the man known as the father of country music, Jimmie Rodgers, grew up — and moved to Los Angeles when he was 17. There he met Parsons and fell in with the burgeoning group of musicians who came of age listening to Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and other seminal rock artists while also cultivating their passion for traditional country, bluegrass and folk music.

Those strains were typically mutually exclusive in Nashville at the time, but in Los Angeles, they merged in the music of the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Linda Ronstadt, the Stone Poneys and other acts.

Hillman, who also has played bass in various groups, said Ethridge brought an R&B feel to his bass work, something that he learned playing in R&B and blues clubs in Mississippi in the early 1960s, a time when that was a rarity for a white musician.

Ethridge left the Burrito Brothers after the group recorded its first album, "The Gilded Palace of Sin," in 1969, and became a studio musician, playing with Ronstadt, Ry Cooder, Randy Newman, Jackson Browne and many others.

Ethridge is survived by his wife, Karen Sue; their daughter, Necia; their sons, John Christopher III and George; eight grandchildren; his mother and two brothers.

randy.lewis@latimes.com

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